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To survive life after hockey, the CBC must change — if it can by Scott Stinson

Mar 20, 2014

Source: National Post

When Rogers Media in November scooped up all NHL broadcast rights for a dozen years, blowing up the pillars of the CBC’s television schedule in the process, it fell to Hubert Lacroix, the president of the public broadcaster, to survey the smoking crater and pronounce the new view to be not so bad.

Lacroix gamely offered that although the CBC was losing the revenue from Hockey Night in Canada, it also wouldn’t have to cut a “big cheque” to the NHL any longer.

But wasn’t Hockey Night profitable?, I asked Lacroix.

“Absolutely,” he said.

And weren’t those profits re-invested in other CBC programming?

They were, he said. But that was the old model. This was the new model: no NHL costs and no NHL revenue, and with the CBC still showing hockey on Saturday nights, but with Rogers owning the content.

I will admit that at this point I was struggling to see the silver lining. Then Lacroix said something that explained everything: “This was the only way for us to continue.”

Things have become clearer still in the months since the Rogers-NHL deal was announced. It is apparent that when Rogers swooped in, CBC executives discovered that it could either agree to loan its airwaves to a private media conglomerate, or it would have to find some other way to fill 300 hours of content. They opted for the former choice, not that they much time to think about it. And, contrary to his glass-half-full take in the fall, Lacroix has since informed CBC staff that the broadcaster is facing significant revenue challenges.

Now, the other shoes are dropping all over the place. George Stroumboulopoulos, one of the CBC’s biggest names, had his 10-season talk show cancelled last week, though he found a hell of a life raft as the new host of Rogers’ Hockey Night on CBC, or whatever it will be called. In recent days, The Ron James Show, a long-running sketch comedy program, was cancelled, and two of CBC’s prime-time dramas, Cracked and Arctic Air, were dropped after two and three seasons, respectively. The latter moves were spun as a move away from the procedural dramas already produced (and imported) in droves by the country’s private broadcasters, to which I say: We shall see.

Is the CBC, with a new team of executives in charge of programming for the last several months, about to embark on a fundamental overhaul of its lineup? Will it stop chasing eyeballs with shows geared toward a broad audience — which is what the private networks are doing already — and try instead to make the kinds of shows that CTV, Global and City aren’t making? This space, for one, would welcome a pivot toward a rebirth as AMC North. (Recognizing that such a thing couldn’t happen overnight, existing shows such as Murdoch Mysteries, Republic of Doyle and Mr. D could stick around for the transition. Murdoch still gets strong ratings, Mr. D’s shortened third season is so far its best yet, and Jake Doyle could start swearing and kill someone with his bare hands.)

But if there is an appetite among its leaders for a repurposing of the CBC, so far the evidence for it is thin. It announced this week that it is bringing back Dragons’ Den, despite the loss of Bruce Croxon and Kevin O’Leary, the show’s Simon Cowell. That’s great news for the six Canadians who still haven’t had a chance to pitch their inventions to the Dragons yet. Meanwhile, all the rest of its vast operations keep chugging along, in many cases competing directly with private media outlets, and at no small cost to the taxpayer.

We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating given recent events: Why not use the loss of NHL hockey as the spark to admit that the CBC model, which requires it to fulfill a public-service mandate while still pursuing commercial advertising dollars, no longer works? If it made sense before, and that’s questionable, it sure doesn’t now that it lost its best vehicle for advertising revenue.

Someone at the CBC leadership needs to point this out, though. Failing that, such a change could come from the corporation’s political masters at the Department of Canadian Heritage, but so far from those corners it’s just crickets. Alternatively, the opposition politicians who are always so quick to jump up and say that the public broadcaster is a vital resource that must be properly funded could perhaps take note that it suffered a huge loss in November and suggest the government do something about it. A stable, multi-year funding envelope? A switch to pay cable? A withdrawal from areas in which CBC’s services are already covered by private media?

Big changes would make more sense than the death by a thousand cuts that the broadcaster presently seems to be suffering. But instead, the post-Hockey Night CBC, and the government, are both following the path of least resistance.

The CBC was already irreparably changed when it lost hockey. So change, already.

© National Post